Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Maharshi Dhondo Keshav Karve

Maharshi Dhondo Keshav Karve (Devanāgari: महर्षी डॉ. धोंडो केशव कर्वे) (April 18, 1858 – November 9, 1962) was a preeminent social reformer of his time in India in the field of welfare of womankind.

Before Karve’s time, Hindu social mores used to discourage education of girls, and parents routinely married off their daughters often before their puberty usually to young boys, but at times even to grown-up widowers. Social mores also disallowed remarriages of widows so that if a breadwinning man died, his widow’s remaining life would turn bleak because, lacking education, she could not support herself. The widow had to spend her life serving the household of her late husband’s relatives.

Maharshi Karve was one of the pioneers in India in breaking with extraordinary fortitude and perseverance the above harsh social mores against womankind. He promoted education of women and freedom for widows to remarry if they wished to do so. The Government of India recognized his reform work by awarding him its highest civilian award, Bhārat Ratna in 1958, (the year in which, incidentally, he completed his 100 years of life. He lived for four more years.)

The appellation, Maharshi, which the Indian public often assigned to Karve means “a great sage”. Those who knew Karve affectionately called him as Annā Karve. (In Marāthi-speaking community, to which Karve belonged, the appellation Annā is often used to address one’s either father or an elder brother.)

Early life

Annasaheb Karve was born on April 18, 1858 at Sheravali, Khed Tālukā of Ratnāgiri district in Mahārāshtra. He was a native of Murud in the Konkan region. He was born in a lower middle-class Chitpāvan Brahmin family. His father’s name was Keshav Bāpunnā Karve. In his autobiography, he wrote of his struggle to appear in a certain public service examination, walking 110 miles in torrential rain and difficult terrain to the nearest city of Sātārā, and his shattering disappointment at not being allowed to appear for the examination because he looked too young.

Karve studied at Elphinstone College in Bombay (Mumbai) to receive a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.

First Marriage

Karve’s parents arranged his marriage when he was 14 to an 8 year old girl named Rādhābāi. Karve had written in his autobiography:

“… I was married at the age of fourteen and my wife was then eight. Her family lived very near to ours, and we knew each other very well and had often played together. However, after marriage, we had to forget our old relation as playmates and to behave as strangers, often looking toward each other but never standing together to exchange words…. We had to communicate with each other through my sister…… My marital life began under the parental roof at Murud when I was twenty…”.

Radhabhai died in 1891 during childbirth at age 27, leaving behind a young son named Raghunath Karve. Raghunath became a visionary social reformer.

Second Marriage

Reformatory thoughts concerning the then prevalent harsh social mores against womankind, stated above, were already stirring up the mind of Karve by the time Radhabai died. Implementing his own reformatory thoughts with extraordinary courage, two years later he chose as his second wife a widow –a 23 year old widow named Godubāi– rather than an unmarried girl whom he could have easily arranged to secure as his new wife according to the prevalent social mores. Godubai, who had been widowed at age 8 within three months of her marriage even before she knew, as she would say later, what it was to be a wife. Before marrying Karve, Godubai had started studying in her early twenties at Panditā Ramābāi’s pioneering Shāradā Sadan as its first widow student, and had also displayed equal courage, like Karve, in defying social mores against remarriages by widows.

Concerning his marriage to Godubai, Karve described in his autobiography how he had asked for her hand in marriage to her father:

“I told him…..[that] I had made up my mind to marry a widow. He sat silent for a minute, and then hinted that there was no need to go in search of such a bride”.

Career as a college professor

During 1891-1914, Karve taught mathematics at Fergusson College in Pune, Mharashtra.


The work of Pandita Ramabai inspired Karve to dedicate his life to the cause of female education, and the work of Pandit Vishnushāstri and Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyāsāgar inspired him to work for uplifting the status of widows. Writings of Herbert Spencer had also highly influenced him.

Social work

In 1893, Karve founded Widhawā-Wiwāhottejak Mandali, which, besides encouraging marriages of widows, also helped the needy children of widows. In 1895, the institution was renamed as Widhawā-Wiwāha-Pratibandh-Niwārak Mandali (Society to Remove Obstacles to Marriages of Widows).

In 1896, Karve established a Hindu Widows’ Home Association and started in Hingane, a village then in the outskirts of Pune in Maharashtra, Mahilāshram, a shelter and a school for women, including widows. He started Mahilā Vidyālaya in 1907; the following year, he started Nishkām Karma Math (Social Service Society) to train workers for the Widows Home and the Mahila Vidyalaya.

Later, Widows Home was renamed as Hingane Stree Shikshan Samsthā. Still later, as the institution flourished by leaps and bounds, it was renamed as Maharshi Karve Stree Shikshan Samstha[6]. When Karve had started his shelter and school for women, including widows, in 1896, he had to start it in the remote village of Hingane outside the city of Pune because the dominant orthodox Brahmin community in the city had ostracized him for his reformatory activitities. (Karve himself belonged to the Brahmin community.) With his meager resources, for many years Karve would walk several miles from Hingane to the city of Pune to teach mathematics at Fergusson College and also collect in his spare time paltry donations from a few progressive donors, even as some others from the orthodox community would openly hurl insulting epithets at him when he went around to spread the word of his emancipatory work and collect donations.

Karve’s 20 year old widowed sister-in-law, Pārwtibāi Āthawale, was the first widow to join his school. After finishing her education, she joined him as the first lady superintendent of the then Hindu Widows’ Home Association.

After reading information about Japan Women’s University in Tokyo, Japan, Karve felt inspired to establish in 1916 in Pune the first university for women in India, with just five students. The curriculum was tailored to the aptitudes of women.

During 1917–1918, Karve established a Training College for Primary School Teachers and another school for girls, named Kanyā Shālā.

In 1920, an industrialist and philanthropist from Mumbai, Sir Vithaldās Thāckersey, donated Karve’s university 1.5 million Indian rupees –a substantial sum in those days– and the university was then renamed as Shreemati Nāthibāi Dāmodar Thāckersey Indian Women’s University or SNDT Women’s University.

In March 1929, Karve left for a tour in England. He attended the Primary Teachers’ Conference at Malvern, and spoke on Education of Women in India at a meeting of the East India Association at Caxton Hall, London. During 25 July – 4 August 1929, he attended an educational conference in Geneva, and spoke on The Indian Experiment in Higher Education for Women. During 8 – 21 August, he attended in Elsinor the international meeting of educationists under the auspices of the New Education Fellowship.

During his subsequent tour of America, Karve lectured at various forums on women’s education and social reforms in India. He also visited the Women’s University in Tokyo. He returned to India in April 1930.

In December 1930, Karve left for a fifteen-month tour in Africa to spread information about his work for women in India. He visited Mombasa, Kenya, Uganda, Tanganayika, Zanzibar, Portuguese East Africa, and South Africa .

In 1931, the SNDT university established its first college in Mumbai, and moved its headquarters to Mumbai five years later.

In 1936, Karve started the Maharashtra Village Primary Education Society with the goal of opening primary schools in villages which had no schools run by the District Local Boards. He also encouraged maintenance of reading habits of adults in villages. In 1944, he founded the Samatā Sangh (Association for the Promotion of Human Equality).

In 1949, the Government of India recognized SNDT University as a statutory university.

The SNDT University and other educational institutions for women started by Karve currently cover the spectrum ranging from pre-primary schools to colleges in humanities, sciences, engineering, architecture, and business management.

Besides dedicating his life to the emancipation of women in India, Karve stood for the abolition of the caste system and the curse of untouchability in the Hindu society.


Karve had four sons: Raghunāth (from his first marriage), Shankar, Dinkar , and Bhāskar. All of them rose to eminence in their own fields of work. Raghunath Karve was a professor of mathematics and a pioneer in sex education and birth control in India. Dinkar was a professor of chemistry and an eminent educationist. (Dinkar’s wife, Irawati Karve, was a leading sociologist of India.) Bhaskar (and his wife Kāveri) worked in Hingane Stree Shikshan Samstha in various leading capacities.

Raghunath published a health magazine, especially promoting sex education and birth control. Dinkar wrote a book titled “The New Brahmans: Five Maharashtrian Families” in which he profiled his father along with other Brahmin reformers, and coauthored a book titled A History of Education in India and Pakistan (1964). Irawati wrote a sociological book in Marathi and a compilation of her essays. A son, Ānand, of Dinkar and Irawati, won at a ceremony in UK in 2002 the prestigious Ashden Award of two million Indian rupees which is given for innovative work concerning the environment in the Third World. The judges declared themselves as excited about Anand’s work concerning an integrated fuel-from-waste system that can create thousands of rural entrepreneurs all over the world, while saving trees and reducing dependance on petroleum[8][9].

Annasaheb Karve often exhibited eccentricities which were not uncommon among men of his generation, was a man of extreme principles, and could be logical to excess. He used to pay for food whenever he had his meals at his son’s place. He never accepted a gift from anybody for himself. A son tried to buy him warm clothes but had to accept money in return; he suggested the son donate money to his social work. On the flip side, Durga Bhagwat has written a devastating indictment of Karve, alleging that he preyed on young women who were facing hard times, and tried to put them under debt of gratitude so that they would be drawn into his coterie for life, looking heartlessly upon them as possible recruits in his social mission. But he was also capable of courage of thought. Karve was in his 90s when his eldest son Raghunath died. Visitors feared they may have to listen to the old man’s terrible torment. But Karve calmly and courageously told them that Raghunath was old and death at that age wasn’t unusual. ‘Having to witness the death of your children is one of the hazards of living to a very long age, and that is my lot. Nothing can be done about it.’

Autobiographical works

Karve wrote two autobiographical works: Ātmawrutta (1928) in Marathi, and Looking Back (1936) in English. He ended the latter with the words: Here ends the story of my life. I hope this simple story will serve some useful purpose.

Awards and honors

* 1942 – Awarded Doctor of Letters (D. Litt.) by Banaras Hindu University
* 1951 – Awarded D.Litt. by Pune University
* 1954 – Awarded D.Litt. by S.N.D.T. University
* 1955 – Awarded Padma Vibhushan by the Government of India
* 1957 – Awarded LL.D. by University of Mumbai
* 1958 – Awarded Bharat Ratna by the Government of India


Maharshi Dhondo Keshav Karve

Maharshi Karve with India’s First Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru

Albert Einstein with Mahrshi Karve

Maharshi Karve with India’s first President Dr. Rajendra Prasad

Photo of the First Day Cover of the stamp of Maharshi Karve

Bharat Ratna Award

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